The Writer’s Portable Mentor: Reading About Writing Is The Next Best Thing

The Writer's Portable Mentor: A Guide to Art, Craft, and the Writing LifeThe Writer’s Portable Mentor: A Guide to Art, Craft, and the Writing Life by Priscilla Long

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I feel the same rush of hands-rubbing-together glee buying a new writing guide as I do a new cookbook (well, almost – if only writing guides had drool-inducing photographs of Truffled Saint-Marcellin or Bucatini all’Amatriciana or Salted Caramel (fill in the blank with anything).

An unread book on the craft of writing is full of possibility, of secrets waiting for revelation, of motivation and inspiration. It may contain the one thing I need to know that will turn my writing life around, the checklist I can follow that will make me a real writer, the advice that will level the uphill road and ensure a rejection letter will never again be addressed in my general direction.

Okay, I’m not that naive optimistic. Still, cracking open an author’s literary toolbox and peering inside seems so hopeful and busy, like I’m thinking super hard about writing. When what I should be doing is, well, writing.

Priscilla Long presented at the Chuckanut Writers Conference in Bellingham this past June. She had me at, something –  I can’t remember what  – but I adored her. Modest, quiet, funny, pragmatic. And a ridiculously accomplished writer who works. Hard. Every day.

Enough of the preamble, the backstory, the poorly developed characters. Let me get right to the point:

You must read this.

Poring over the opening pages of this book coincided with writing the opening pages of my novel. Only a few weeks ago, yet I’ve forgotten already which came first. What I remember is finally giving in to the one thing that every author of a writing guide writes in their opening pages: You must write every day. Yeah, I know. I know. But look, I have a day job – writing every day isn’t feasible. I already get up at the crack of dawn. Earlier. I’m exhausted by the time I get home in the evenings. When am I supposed to do this writing? When do I get to work on what I want to work on, if I’m having to submit to the drudgery of a 15-20 minute free write, every day?

Excuses. That Priscilla Long finally gave me the courage to stop making. And it was so easy. Now I feel I have no other choice. And I’m thinking that if you aren’t heeding Priscilla’s advice by page 20, you should just stop reading this book until you can. The only thing that makes a writer a writer is writing. Every Day.

Thanks to my consistent daily free writing by hand, I have pages of scenes, character notes, setting sketches. Every day of scribbling brings me closer to my story, my characters, their motivations. I create and cover plot holes. A random writing prompt leads me to ask questions about my plot, jotting notes in the margins of ideas to pursue, details to research. I regularly transcribe these daily writings into my Work In Progress on the computer and doing so leads to other scenes, ideas and characters.

All that, just from reading Chapter One.

The Writer’s Portable Mentor is to a writer – of any level of experience and ambition – as much a toolbox as one of those gazillion-piece Craftsman tool sets is to an automotive repair pro. And Priscilla makes you work – there are no hypotheticals here. You take your own work, you take work of authors you admire, and you examine them, rework them, learning every step of the way.

I now keep a Lexicon notebook (right, so it was an excuse to buy what comes third in my bookstore thrill-seeking – after cookbooks and writing guides: Moleskine notebooks). But I have a growing collection of lovely, evocative, provocative, delicious words and sayings that I will find a way to use or be inspired by: phrases such as back-lit light of polished steel (poet Mary Oliver), marzipan moon (author Hilary Mantel), as tender as an extension cord (Pete Wells, restaurant critic, The New York Times); words like borage, palavering, sump, scialytic. It scares me to think of all the gorgeous words and phrases I’ve forgotten after forty years of reading!

I have several stories cooling in a drawer. I’ve chastised myself for not making the time or creating the courage to rework my pieces, research markets and submit them. Turns out I was wise to leave them sit, letting my thoughts sift, before returning to them with fresh, more critical eyes.

With Long’s guidance on structure, openings, sentences, paragraphs, punctuation, word choice, and revision, I’m tearing these stories apart and reassembling. And I will submit, resubmit – even those previously published, where possible. Long is very keen that you get your work out there – the creative process is not complete until you have attempted to share it with the world.

I will ‘fess up: I did not do all the exercises. I did not comb through books I admire and craft my own sentences and paragraphs based on their models. I’m in too much of a groove with my writing and I don’t want to slow the momentum. You can’t be dogmatic about these things, any more than you can cook every single recipe in a cookbook and blog about it, then write a bestseller that will become a major motion picture starring Meryl Streep, now can you? Oh, wait…

This isn’t the be all and end all of writing guides – there are so many astonishing and revelatory works to discover and reread – several that are on my list to explore for the first time, many others I return to for inspiration and practical advice. But if asked to make a Desert Island decision – if I could take only one book – my choice would be clear:

I’d take my writing-practice notebook. And a pen. Thanks, Priscilla.

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17 thoughts on “The Writer’s Portable Mentor: Reading About Writing Is The Next Best Thing

  1. I am so glad that you brought this issue up LadyGrave. I too have experienced exactly what you describe so well here – the fun and immediacy of blogging, as Julia so rightly states, the words landing instantly into the laps of our readers, juxtaposed against the insiduous nature of writing for ones blog, not entirely dissimilar to feeding a large family of hungry mouths, voracious in its appetite! The challenge is, as you write, to find the balance.
    My personal response was to close down my blog and try and figure out what to do next.! I’m not recommending this for anyone, mind you, especially since I LOVE reading other writer’s blogs, especially our dearly beloved Julie’s. No I needed to step back and figure out exactly what I was hoping to achieve by writing a blog, apart from having fun that is! Bottom line, I don’t have enough time to do all the writing I would like to. For now the decision is to stick with the fiction and let the blog hang…though I may change my mind next week…or when the children return to school…who knows what the future may hold?!!1 🙂

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    1. You have to do what’s right/write for you and the Muse. Once it starts feeling like an obligation, it stops being your voice and becomes the voice of the Other- that internal of external pressure to produce and present, instead of creating what’s in your heart.

      When you are ready to share, Edith, we’ll be here to enjoy and learn from your creation!

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  2. Definitely putting this on my list! Writing every day sounds so simple, but then—, and then—! I need to stop making excuses too. I’m curious; do you count writing a blog post as “writing” for that day, or do you consider blogging separate from writing fiction?

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    1. Grace, my very first reaction was “For me, no. I don’t count blog writing…” Then I went for a run and reconsidered. Everything becomes clearer when endorphins are involved!

      I started this blog before I began writing fiction, as a way to bridge the gap between journaling, which I ceased doing because I was sick of reading-hearing myself think, and creative writing, which I wanted to do, but didn’t know where or how to begin.

      A couple of my blog posts, written as creative non-fiction/personal essays, became inspiration for two short stories. Which are, in fact, the two stories I’ve had published so far.

      So, I’d be silly to disregard the blog as a source of creative writing. It’s the most immediate way to release your words to the world, which is the final stop for a piece of writing.

      As I say in my “About this Blog” it’s my place to play. As I don’t say, the blog is the place to shoot the shit! I find I’m writing more about writing, which is lovely. But I’ve got some other things brewing in my brain.

      I also love to write book reviews. This was really my start to writing seriously. Thinking critically about (mostly) fiction makes for a better writer, I hope. It’s yet one more way to flex the writing chops.

      In the practical, day-to-day sense, I still turn to my morning writing session as the guaranteed daily effort on my WIP. That might be the only WIP work I get done on a given day. As I continue, I’m getting a sense of weekly word count goals, monthly goals.

      Of course, I leave for a 3 week vacation in 3 weeks. There goes that plan. Though I do intend to take my writing-practice notebook. There will be moments of peace when I can write.

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      1. When I went on vacation I didn’t write for two weeks (writing on a greyhound bus is one of those things that only works in theory) but then I had lots of inspiration for when I got back. I hope you enjoy your trip! Your blog entries are always quality, so I’m glad they “count” in some sense. I asked about the blogging because I’m a little torn on whether my blog is helping me with my fiction or not. On the one hand, it’s great for providing inspiration and accountability (and absolutely necessary for promotion when I actually self-publish). Some days, writing the blog post lets me get into writing for the day, and functions as a warm-up, so by the time I turn to my manuscript I’m already cranking out words that make sense. Other days, however, I use up my entire morning writing time on crafting a well-written entry for the blog, and then engaging in the wordpress community. Then, by the time I turn to my manuscript, I’m neurotically checking my wordpress notifications for comments, likes, and pageviews, and I can’t get into a good writing groove for the real work. I’m having so much fun with blogging, and, like I said, it’s necessary, but I need to keep working on balance and the ability to shut it out when I’m spending time with my manuscript.

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      2. I feel very much the same about writing blog posts and book reviews. This is writing. This is thinking critically about writing. BUT. It’s not the MS. It’s hard to ignore that little voice whining in the background, “You’re not working…” Flogging the sports metaphor again, it’s like cross-training. You can’t do the same exercise every day, right?

        I’ll be fairly well disconnected while in Ireland. No pressure on myself to write anything other than my morning free-write. Though I will have lots of quiet time – many miles to hike each day – so the notebook will be tucked into the backpack, in case the Muse hitches a ride for the day!

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      3. Julie, this is absolutely fascinating to read, and so very helpful to a confused writer like myself. I often think that if I could only just settle on a system, an approach that I could simply slip into, like pulling on an old, comfy sweater, just do it without having to think about what to do, then everything would be so much easier – less procrastinating, more work done.
        I suppose that really this all amounts to teething problems, the challenges and problems which beset beginners in all areas of life. And in order to find what works best for me I need first to try out different approaches.
        I really really like your suggestion to write morning pages. I have of course known of these for a long time, perhaps they were even my very first introduction to writing/journaling, but I have never actually practiced them. And whatever else they are, they are most certainly a practice. Like Zen, or yoga……or writing!

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      4. I’m such a creature of habit. Or at least the yin of habit balances out the yang of change, which has been a prevalent theme in our life. It amazes me what I’m able to conceive in such a short period of time – those 20-40 minutes in the morning- when I direct my writing to my story, yet write to a scripted prompt. The prompt forces me to consider an aspect of a story or character I might not have considered on my own.

        I did Morning Pages à la Julia Cameron for years and this practice was so valuable. But now it feels too much like journal writing, which is not of interest to me any more. I don’t want to write about my life, I want to create other lives!

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  3. Earlier this week in my writing group we were talking about how we could see great improvement in each others’ writing over the two years we have all been meeting. It does take practice and we do improve. Thank you for reinforcing the truth and for the recommendation.

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